Curtain Call: Last Century, Physics Was the Superstar of the Sciences: We Swooned over the Theories of Relativity and Cheered the Discovery of Quantum Mechanics. but a Field of Study Is Only as Good as Its Last Production. Has Physics Taken Its Final Bow or Has It Merely Completed Its First Act?

By Rigden, John S. | Science & Spirit, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Curtain Call: Last Century, Physics Was the Superstar of the Sciences: We Swooned over the Theories of Relativity and Cheered the Discovery of Quantum Mechanics. but a Field of Study Is Only as Good as Its Last Production. Has Physics Taken Its Final Bow or Has It Merely Completed Its First Act?


Rigden, John S., Science & Spirit


Football analyst and former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, sitting in the broadcast booth watching a National Football League game a few years ago, identified a particular player as being unusually smart, but not a genius. "Nobody in football should be called a genius," he stated. "A genius is somebody like Norman Einstein." It was an unfortunate slip of the tongue, especially for a television commentator, but there is no doubt that every listener knew what Theismann meant to say, for Albert Einstein is indeed the standard of intelligence.

A century after he emerged from total obscurity with five remarkable papers and fifty years after his death, Einstein continues to occupy a unique place in our minds. Time magazine chose him as the Person of the Century. Still, when one considers the stellar array of individuals who shaped the last century, the selection of a physicist for the honor begs the questions, "Why Einstein?" and "Why a physicist?" I suggest Einstein is special because he was a physicist and because physics itself is special.

In 1918, following the end of the Great War, people were emotionally exhausted and desperately wanted the world to make sense. In Berlin, a physicist working quietly, using only the power of his mind, predicted a subtle behavior of nature. When his prediction--that starlight would be deflected as it grazed the edge of the sun--was proven correct in 1919, the world welcomed the news, and Einstein became a celebrity.

In the decades that followed, physicists were regarded as heroes. During World War II, they developed radar, which won the war, and the atomic bomb, which ended the war. Throughout much of the twentieth century, physicists commanded the lion's share of media attention as they identified the basic building blocks of matter, invented the transistor and the laser, probed the eerie consequences of quantum mechanics, and uncovered evidence about how the universe began.

Over the last thirty years, however, physics has been nudged from the spotlight by the life sciences, which were transformed by the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA in 1953. Biochemistry and molecular biology changed the life sciences. Biologists are increasingly guided by the basic physical and chemical properties of specific molecules that determine particular functions within organisms and interact within a particular environment. The human genome has been mapped, providing the molecular blueprint of Homo sapiens. Genes have been isolated, genetic engineering has altered grains and other foods, and clones of various animals have been produced. All of this, along with the thorny ethical and social issues raised, is the stuff of high drama, as the headlines of our leading publications make clear.

The spectacular advances in the life sciences over the last twenty-five years, combined with the foundational advances in physics during the twentieth century, have prompted some to suggest that the halcyon days of physics are past--that the public fascination with physics is forgotten. I disagree. The state of contemporary physics is robust, and, given human nature, I believe its grip on the human mind will remain firm.

Any assessment of contemporary physics is made against the blinding luster of the successes of the past two centuries. The physics developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries transformed the physical world from a subject for qualitative speculation into one with quantitatively established laws operating in the seen and unseen physical worlds. Physicists in the 1800s crafted, and largely completed, an exquisitely detailed edifice now called "classical" physics, which includes electricity and magnetism, optics, heat and thermodynamics, elasticity and hydrodynamics, the energy principle, atomism and the kinetic theory of gases, and statistical mechanics. This topical organization of physics by nineteenth-century physicists remains unchanged, as a perusal of any introductory physics textbook quickly confirms.

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Curtain Call: Last Century, Physics Was the Superstar of the Sciences: We Swooned over the Theories of Relativity and Cheered the Discovery of Quantum Mechanics. but a Field of Study Is Only as Good as Its Last Production. Has Physics Taken Its Final Bow or Has It Merely Completed Its First Act?
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